Female lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement

Female lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement
© Greg Nash

Some senior GOP women are fleeing the House, opting for retirement or deciding that they have better prospects running for higher office in 2018 than a spot in GOP leadership.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, is expected to jump into the race against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillSenators question need for HHS cyber office Overnight Cybersecurity: Obama DHS chief defends Russian hack response | Trump huddles on grid security | Lawmakers warned about cyber threat to election systems We must protect our most vulnerable from financial fraudsters MORE. GOP Rep. Kristi Noem is the front-runner in the race for South Dakota governor. And Republican Rep. Diane BlackDiane BlackLawmakers celebrate National Selfie Day on Twitter Ryan: Some tax-reform provisions don't have to be permanent Top Trump campaign surrogate plans run for Congress MORE, the new Budget Committee chairwoman, is eyeing the Tennessee governor’s mansion, GOP sources said.

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Meanwhile, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a former Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman and the first Latina elected to Congress, and Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), who formerly served in leadership as GOP conference vice chairwoman, both are retiring at the end of this Congress. 

In interviews with The Hill, some female GOP lawmakers and their aides suggested that subtle sexism in the male-dominated House Republican Conference has blocked talented, experienced women from climbing the leadership ladder. Women comprise just 21 of the 238 Republicans in the House, or less than 10 percent.

Of the 193 House Democrats with full voting privileges, there are 62 women — 32 percent of the caucus.

“You think it would be helpful to be a female, but it’s sort of a detraction. I can’t believe I would say that, but it shows,” Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill. “Some of these guys, they just see themselves in those [top leadership] positions and they want it for themselves. And they think if it goes to a woman they will never be able to grab it again.

“There are better staircases to use which will get you further than being in the House. That’s the reason they are running for other offices.”

Democrats can point to Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAre Democrats trying to pin the blame for their own sins on Russia? Trump: Calling Warren Pocahontas ‘an insult to Pocahontas’ GOP vows to use Pelosi against Democrats in 2018 MORE, who was the first woman nominated for president by a major party, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the first woman elected Speaker.

No woman has ever climbed higher than House Republican Conference chair, the No. 4 post in leadership. That means there has never been a female GOP Speaker, majority leader or majority whip.

Current Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersPaul Ryan: ‘Beautiful day’ to catch up with Bono Bono signs card for Scalise during Capitol Hill visit The Hill's Latina Leaders to Watch MORE (R-Wash.) is the only woman on Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP agrees on one thing: ObamaCare taxes must go Ryan reminds lawmakers to be on time for votes Lawmakers consider new security funding in wake of shooting MORE’s (R-Wis.) current leadership team, but she’s been unable to advance any further.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRyan reminds lawmakers to be on time for votes Juan Williams: GOP fumbles on healthcare The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s (R-Ohio) forced resignation in 2015 set off a leadership scramble. McMorris Rodgers, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and then-Rep, Tom Price (R-Ga.) vied for majority leader, but McMorris Rodgers quickly dropped out of the race once it became clear she didn’t have enough support. That race was called off after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) abruptly abandoned his bid for Speaker and decided to remain in the No. 2 post.

But the episode proved once again that the GOP conference was not going to promote a woman to any of the “Big Three” leadership jobs. Earlier this year, several media outlets reported that President Trump had picked McMorris Rodgers to be his Interior secretary, but he changed his mind and instead gave the job to Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.).

“You won’t see a woman in a leadership spot besides conference chair for many years. The House GOP isn’t built for it,” fumed a top aide to a female GOP lawmaker. “There are too many well-meaning Southern men who wouldn’t vote for a strong assertive women when the other choice is another Southern man.”

“I don’t think there is a concerted effort to keep women out of leadership,” the staffer said. “But given a choice, this conference will always go the other way.”

In an interview Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers downplayed the idea of a House GOP glass ceiling, calling the lower chamber “a farm team where people always come to get experience to run for higher office.” But she acknowledged the challenges women face in Congress are similar to those in other workplaces.

“I think what’s happening in Congress is not that much different than the national conversation that we’re having as a society about women who are filling these roles that have traditionally been held by men,” McMorris Rodgers told The Hill.

House Republicans have been criticized in the past for not being more cognizant on gender matters. For example, Democrats in 2012 cried foul when a GOP-led panel heard from an all-male panel about an Obama-era policy on contraception.

In March, a photograph from a healthcare meeting at the White House attended by Trump, Vice President Pence and the all-male House Freedom Caucus did not include a single woman. A photo-op of Trump and House Republicans celebrating their healthcare victory in the Rose Garden also was similarly panned. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellPrice: 'No guarantees' people won't fall through cracks of healthcare bill Senate Republicans reluctant to rush vote on healthcare bill GOP senator defends funding Planned Parenthood MORE (R-Ky.) attracted criticism by assembling a 13-member, all-male panel to work on a Senate version of the repeal-and-replace legislation. McConnell has since added GOP women to the working group. The top GOP leaders in the Senate are also all men.

“Those photos with President Trump and the White House, it’s a bunch of guys and then the healthcare [Senate] group. ... Photo after photo, they just don’t get it,” Ros-Lehtinen said. 

Ros-Lehtinen, who is one of only two Republican women on the Foreign Affairs Committee and served two years as that panel’s chairwoman, has been a vocal critic of Trump and said he’s “not my cup of tea.” But it’s not “disillusionment or discomfort with the current political climate” that’s driving her into retirement, she said.

The dean of the Florida delegation also said quitting Congress has nothing to do with fears she could be defeated in 2018, though Clinton beat Trump by about 20 points in her Miami-area district.  

Ros-Lehtinen, 64, said she’s simply ready for something different after nearly three decades in the House. 

Other House GOP women have chosen a similar path. Wyoming Rep. Cynthia LummisCynthia LummisFemale lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement Despite a battle won, 'War on Coal' far from over Dems on offense in gubernatorial races MORE’s retirement in 2016 left the 30-member Freedom Caucus without a single female member. And the recent retirement of House Administration Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the sole woman among the 22 GOP committee chairmen, sent Ryan and his team scrambling to find more chairwomen.

Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia FoxxThe Hill's 12:30 Report House urged to ‘go ugly early’ Top Education official resigned over dispute with DeVos: report MORE (R-N.C.), who served on Ryan’s leadership team as GOP conference secretary, was elected chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Ryan also named Rep. Susan BrooksSusan BrooksBipartisan lawmakers give blood in honor of Scalise Female lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement Overnight Cybersecurity: Nunes recuses himself amid ethics probe | Surveillance uproar puts GOP in a bind | Dem bill would reinstate internet privacy rules MORE (R-Ind.) as chair of the House Ethics Committee, an appointed post.

Republicans got a third committee chairwoman in February when the Ryan-aligned Steering Committee picked Black to succeed Price as head of the Budget panel after Trump tapped him to be his Health and Human Services secretary. 

But she may not stay for long. Her spokeswoman, Hillary Lassiter, said Black is completely focused on her work on the Budget panel. But other sources close to the four-term lawmaker and former nurse said she is likely to announce a Tennessee gubernatorial bid later this year.

“I think it is very likely that she runs. I would be surprised if she didn’t,” said a GOP source close to Black. 

House GOP women are leading in other ways as well, McMorris Rodgers said. Reps. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnGoogle will no longer use data from personal Gmail accounts for advertising Overnight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Overnight Tech: Uber CEO resigns | Trump's Iowa tech trip | Dems push Sessions to block AT&T-Time Warner deal | Lawmakers warned on threat to election systems | MORE (Tenn.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) all hold influential subcommittee gavels, and Stefanik is the first woman to head up 2018 recruitment efforts for the House GOP’s campaign arm. During the last Congress, Blackburn led a committee charged with investigating Planned Parenthood.

“We still have a lot of work to do as a party. Unfortunately we lose women at the same rate as we’re gaining women,” McMorris Rodgers said. “We need to continue to work to recruit more women to run, help them run a successful campaign, and help them win their races so they can serve in the House.”